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Yesterday, I wrote about some of the difficulties facing obituary writers following the death of Mike Penner, a transgender sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times. When Penner was found dead in his home on Nov. 28, his obituary writers were left with an identity problem: Should they remember Penner as male or female?
Penner’s career generated significant public interest in 2007 when he came out as transgender, began living publicly as a woman, and changed his L.A. Times byline to Christine Daniels. But late in 2008, Daniels quietly detransitioned back to Mike, reclaimed his original byline, and scrubbed the L.A. Times‘ Web site of all work attributed to Daniels.
In light of Penner’s more recent detransition, most obit writers in both the sports and LGBT communities have chosen to eulogize Penner with male name and pronouns—-while still acknowledging that Penner was transgender, and noting the time he lived publicly as Daniels. A few obituary writers, however, have chosen to pay their respects more directly to Daniels, using female signifiers to remember the sportswriter’s life. Bitch Magazine‘s Anna Clark was one of them. Clark explains her decision via e-mail:
I used female pronouns in the Bitch piece because the only information I had was that she began writing under the Mike Penner byline—but I couldn’t find any explicit confirmation, in her words, that this indicated a full intent to de-transition, or even that she herself initiated the byline change and blog deletion. I think it’s safe to assume that she did initiate it, given her paper’s support of her previously, and it’s quite likely that she did intend to de-transition both on and off the sports page. But I didn’t feel comfortable writing about her with male pronouns without finding any facts that made this explicit. There was a lot of commentary and presumption that followed in the wake of the byline change—but nothing in her own words, that indicated her own intent. At least nothing that I could find. As you wrote in your piece, this shift back had little of the initial fanfare.
Which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not a valid all the same. I do understand and respect why other obits use male pronouns. I do think it’s crucial for journalists to follow the gender cues of the person involved, however they might change. But I also think it’s important to ensure that those cues come directly from the person involved, rather than the people and commentary and implications surrounding the person; to do otherwise often leads to transphobic media. In this particular case, I simply used the only direct cues I could find from the person involved—which was when she came out as a trans woman. If she did de-transition, and there’s clear, first-person indication out there that this is so, I hope to find out about it.
As Clark notes, Penner’s initial gender transition was accompanied by speaking engagements, national interviews, and a personal blog. His detransition back to Mike inspired no public announcements—-just a byline switch followed by a marked absence from the media spotlight and the LGBT activist community.
Ina Fried, for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist’s Association (NLGJA), put the Penner/Daniels obituaries in context. The gender confusion that lingered after Penner’s death, Fried notes, is a consistent problem in the coverage of transgender subjects:
Writing about transgender subjects, to me, necessarily means embracing complexity. The general style is to use the pronoun and name that the person prefers and the best way to know this is to ask that person. Unfortunately, still too often we write about transgender people, often for the first time, only after they have died through violence or by their own hand. This means writing about people who often lived in a world somewhere in between the gender they were born with and the one in which they saw themselves in an ideal world.
It means that they may be known differently to different people with whom they were close.
To Fried, it’s okay that some have chosen to remember Christine Daniels, and others Mike Penner: “no matter what pronouns one uses, both personas deserve to be remembered.”
Photo courtesy of Autumn Sandeen